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Epicene Nouns: Gender Neutral Words in Spanish

In Spanish, nouns are categorized into two grammatical genders: masculine and feminine. While the grammatical gender of a noun that describes a living being sometimes gives away that being's real life gender, there is a special category of nouns known as "epicene nouns" where this is not the case. In this lesson, we will explore the concept of epicene nouns in Spanish and provide you with several examples to better understand them. 


Epicene Nouns: The Basic Rules

When indicating real life gender in Spanish, for some living beings, there are different words for the male and female versions, for example, la vaca (the cow) vs. el toro (the bull). Others nouns indicate real life gender with changes to their endings and/or articles, such as the fact that el maestro refers to a male teacher, while la maestra is a female teacher. 


Grammatically speaking, epicene nouns, like all nouns, are either masculine or feminine. However, what makes Spanish epicene nouns unique is that they are used for both the males and females of the beings they describe. For example, the noun la hormiga (ant) is a feminine noun that can be used to talk about either a male or female insect. Considering this, if you wish to say that a male ant was defending the queen ant, you would need to add the word macho (male) after it for clarification:


La hormiga macho estaba defendiendo a la reina.

The male ant was defending the queen.


Therefore, if you wish to provide this type of precise information regarding the real life gender of the noun about which you are speaking, the following terms should be used to talk about animals and people.


ANIMALS macho (male) hembra (female)
PEOPLE varón (male) mujer (female)
masculino (masculine) femenino (feminine)



Agreement With Epicene Nouns

It is important to keep in mind that grammatical agreement in terms of number and gender with epicene nouns is determined by a noun's grammatical gender rather than the sex of the entity it refers to. Let's see what we mean in the following example:


Correct: El tiburón hembra es muy peligroso (The female shark is very dangerous).


Incorrect: El tiburón hembra es muy peligrosa (The female shark is very dangerous).


As you can see, the masculine singular adjective peligroso (dangerous) is used to modify the masculine singular noun el tiburón (the shark), despite the fact that the shark is female. It would be wrong to choose the feminine singular form peligrosa in attempts to correspond to the feminine adjective hembra (female). Now that we know these rules, let's take a look at some of the most common epicene nouns in the Spanish language.


Epicene Nouns for Animals

The majority of Spanish epicene nouns are words for animals. In the following list, you can see several:


el búho (the owl)

el camaleón (the chameleon)

la cebra (the zebra)

la hiena (the hyena)

la hormiga (the ant)

la jirafa (the giraffe)

la mosca (the fly)

el tiburón (the shark)


Interestingly, some other nouns like el perro (the dog) and el gato (the cat) may also be considered epicene as they could refer to either gender of these animals. However, in some circles, words like la perra and la gata could be chosen to describe male or female cats. 


Epicene Nouns for People

Now let's look at some epicene nouns for people:


la persona (the person)

la autoridad (the authority)

el personaje (the character)

la víctima (the victim)

el especialista (the specialist)


Some additional epicene nouns for people such as el estudiante (the student), el dentista (the dentist), or el cliente (the customer) can also refer to either men or women. Over time, however, their feminine versions (la estudiante, la dentista, la clienta) have come to be used by some people when referring to females who fit these descriptions.


Now that you understand the concept of epicene nouns, let's see a couple of examples from the Yabla Spanish video library. In the first one, you can see how the feminine epicene noun la víctima (the victim) is used to talk about a male victim, while in the second, the masculine noun el personaje describes a female "character":


¡él no es un asesino! Él, ante todo, es una víctima,

he's not a murderer! He, first and foremost, is a victim,

Captions 12-13, Confidencial: Asesino al Volante Capítulo 5 - Part 8

 Play Caption


el nombre del personaje mitológico mexicano de 'la Llorona'.

the name of the Mexican mythological character 'La Llorona' [The Weeping Woman].

Caption 51, Carlos explica Recursos para consultas del español - Part 8

 Play Caption


That's all for this lesson. We hope that you learned something new today, and don't forget to send us your comments and suggestions. ¡Hasta la próxima!


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